POEMS by Tania J. Spencer

Three loves

I
You text me from
the foothills of the Himalayas
picturesque
remote
full of litter,
still.

II
Sometimes I still
feel the sweep of this
beacon. Not you, as much
as the love; not the cowrie
as much as the sea.

III
And you.
Your quietness turned
into children.

 

Things we keep

Walking in the dark,
between other people’s
houses once I heard
a puppy beaten softly,
to death. Its squeals
popped off
like buttons
and rolled
across the floor,
towards me.
Sometimes, I
still count them.

EXTRACT: Rapid Fire by John Maytham

In Rapid Fire, veteran broadcaster JOHN MAYTHAM has collected questions submitted by 567 CapeTalk listeners to test his remarkable general knowledge in the ever popular insert of the same name on his afternoon drive-time show. Here are a few of some the oddest, arcane and most surprising questions – and answers.

John Maytham

Are there animals that can live without water?

The North American kangaroo rat is most often cited in internet discussions of this topic. These rats do need water to survive, but they have evolved such that it is possible for them to go through their entire life cycle, between three and five years, without ever drinking water. They collect seeds during moist conditions, and live off the nutrition and moisture stored in those seeds.

Then there is an extraordinary water-wise amphibian, the Australian water-holding frog. It stores water in pockets of skin all over its body, but holds most of it in the bladder. It is able to store double its body weight in water, and can live for up to five years without needing to take a drink. Local Aboriginals, if they’re thirsty while out in the bush, will try to catch one of these frogs and squeeze the water directly from the frog’s bladder into their mouths.

Why are weddings rings traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand in many Western cultures?

This is based on a traditional (but incorrect) belief that there is a vein that runs directly from that finger to the heart. It was called the vena amoris, the “vein of love”.

What is the link between the musical works of Handel and Bach, and the one-rand coin?

The words Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory) appear on the one-rand coin. Those same words are also part of the dedication of many works by the likes of Bach and Handel.

Can a vegan eat a fig?

Hmmm, lots of nuance in the answer! It depends – on the fig and on the vegan. Some figs, like the Smyrna, are pollinated in such a way that the female wasp dies inside the fig. The body will be dissolved by acid activity, but strictly speaking,

there will be animal matter inside the fig. Some very strict vegans might see that as reason to avoid the fruit. Forgive me for being technical, but some fig species are parthenocarpic, which means they develop fruit-like structures that don’t require pollination. (Don’t worry, I don’t understand it either.) All vegans can eat these varieties with a clear conscience.

Bananas, on the other hand, are a different story. If they come from a field that has been sprayed with a pesticide like chitosan, then very strict vegans will look the other way because shrimp and crab shells are on chitosan’s list of ingredients. Did someone mention slippery slopes?

The first British astronomer at the Cape, Fearon Fallows, is buried in the grounds of the South African Astronomical Observatory in a suburb of Cape Town. His grave has one very unusual feature. What is it?

The grave is twelve feet deep. Fallows knew he was dying and, fearing that his burial site would be disturbed by grave robbers, he asked to be buried twelve feet down. As the observatory is on rocky ground, the digging must have been very hard work!

What was bought in the first-ever bitcoin purchase?

Don’t ask me to explain bitcoin – it’s dark matter as far as I’m concerned. All I can do is report the fact that on 22 May 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world bitcoin transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida, for 10 000 BTC. And the fact that, had he made himself a sandwich instead and held onto those bitcoin (bitcoins?), then at the time of writing this book those 10 000 BTC were worth $11 million. (I hope those pizzas were really good.) [Ed’s note: today those pizzas are now worth more than $105 million.]

Advertisements for watches usually feature a watch face set at a particular time. What is that time and why has it been chosen?

The time is ten past ten, because this position of the watch hands is seen as the best possible framing of the manufacturer’s logo and also creates the happy impression of a smiling face.

Why did George Dawson rise to fame in the US?

He learnt to read at the age of 98. Still described as ‘America’s poster child for literacy’, Dawson had a rough life, being the grandchild of slaves and first put to work at the age of four. He died at the age of 103, but enjoyed national attention in the five years between learning to read and passing away. Two universities conferred honorary degrees on him; television programmes were made about him; he appeared on Oprah, where he said, “It’s never too late to learn, I’m still learning now”; he had a school named after him; and he co-authored a biographical work, Life Is So Good, when he was 102.

Rapid Fire is published by Tafelberg.

POEMS by Molantwa Mmele

The garden boy

My grandfather
has a beautiful floral garden
in his house, he spends at least two hours
on it before the sunrise
and after the sunset to cultivate
the soil and irrigate his plants and so forth

During the day he ambles around the
garden admiring his blossoms, pulling out
weeds and spraying insects away.
His old friends call him “the garden boy”.

Yesterday we went to visit
my grandmother’s grave. I for the first time
saw her name on the tombstone:
Mapalesa Rose Yatlholeho
and it all came together

Impecunious

We did not have enough space
for Christmas trees in our home
The only empty spaces that we had
were our moaning stomachs, and brains
starving for knowledge.
We were nothing else but young faces
wearing dusty veils made of thousand smiles
Regardless …

REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.